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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,599


This is the grave of L. Frank Baum.

Born in 1856 in Chittenango, New York, Lyman Frank Baum (I can see why he chose to go as Frank) grew up pretty wealthy. His father had made a lot of money in the Pennsylvania oil boom taking off just as his son was being born. So he grew up in the family’s big estate in central New York, roaming around the sizable property and having fun as a kid. He was a bit sickly, so his dad sent him to a military academy to toughen him up. But he really didn’t belong there and was soon sent home. Dad was a businessman. Frank was a dreamer. This led to family tensions. But Frank started writing and even produced a little local magazine, soliciting advertisements from local businesses. He got into the craze of exotic poultry breeding in the mid 1870s and became a well known breeder of the Hamburg chicken, even publishing a book about it. He also went into the theater, with limited success.

The larger point here is that Baum was more than a bit of a dilettante, but he was certainly committed to his passions, however odd some of them might have been. His family tried to support him and in 1880, his father even built him a theater in the town of Richburg, New York as a place he could put on his plays. The theater burned in 1882, destroying most of Baum’s early work. Around this time, he also married a suffragist named Maud Gage and became interested in social reform, partly at least through her. As you can see, Maud is buried here too. More on here later.

In 1888, Baum moved his family to South Dakota to run a store. It was, predictably, a disaster. He was a horrible businessman and just gave everything away on credit without actually checking to see if there was any chance these farmers would pay him back. Narrator: They did not. So that went under. Then he edited the local newspaper. He had the typical beliefs of a South Dakota white of the period, i.e., he demanded the complete and utter extermination of all Native Americans in the state. Literally. After the death of Sitting Bull, he wrote an editorial demanding they all be murdered in a similar fashion. Then after Wounded Knee, he wrote in another editorial:

The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extirmination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries, we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.”

And yes, he misspelled extermination. There was no contradiction between views like this and being quite progressive on issues such as women’s suffrage, which he supported.

The newspaper closed in 1891 and our now pretty well lost nearly middle aged dreamer moved his family again, this time to Chicago. He worked for newspapers, first as a reporter. Then he opened a magazine about the new department store craze that became an industry publication about shop window displays. He wrote a lot about the use of mannequins. But he still had no money. In fact, he had to lower himself to being a traveling salesman for awhile.

Then in 1900, he published The Wizard of Oz. This became a huge best-seller and transformed Baum’s life. It would be forgotten today except for the pioneering film that remains one of the most popular movies ever made. There has long been debate about the allusions in the novel. Many historians have noted that it is a pretty clear allusion to the Populists. But it should be noted that there is a minority response to this among some historians who study these issues that make strong claims that it is actually about the rise of the department store. I have not examined the question closely enough to have any real thoughts on the matter myself. But you can speculate in comments at least.

Baum was as surprised as anyone to make money on something. So he went all in on the Oz stories. A musical stage version came out in 1902 that he supervised with those who actually knew how to do that. It debuted in Chicago and then had a huge Broadway run. There were a lot of changes to the plot and a lot of political jokes that Baum didn’t approve of, but he did approve of the money. Baum wanted more money so he wrote a follow up, The Marvelous Land of Oz. It was not well-received. He moved to California and wanted to start an Oz amusement park, where he would in fact live. After the complete failure of the stage version of Marvelous, which played as The Woggle-Bug, he gave up that dream.

But Baum, again a man who was just terrible with money, kept throwing his newfound fortune at ridiculous ideas. He would finance the most over the top musicals possible, mostly around Oz. None did well and eventually his debts began to overwhelm his royalties. He had to declare bankruptcy in 1911, though by this time, he had transferred all his property into his wife’s name. I don’t know the first thing about bankruptcy law back then (or really, today), but that seems super legally dubious to me. He kept writing book after book about Oz, to diminishing effect. They did have some good times–a big trip to Europe and Egypt came after the success of the Oz musical. But overall, he sucked at the finances. He did continue with the political allusions in his works, including some clear connections between various characters and suffragists.

Late in life, Baum went into making movies for children, including hopefully around Oz. But he died in 1919 of a stroke. He was 62.

This is when Maud took over. I can only imagine what living with a guy like Baum would be like, a total dreamer who struck it big one time and screwed up everything else in his life. But she stuck by him. She took over the Oz franchise after his death, wrote a bit more, and managed it a lot more effectively. MGM brought her on for the creation and promotion of the legendary 1939 film. She lived in pretty fair health for the rest of her long life, until about 1949, when she broke her hip in a fall. She died in 1953, at the age of 91.

L. Frank Baum is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California.

If you would like this series to visit people associated with the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Frank Morgan is in Brooklyn and Ray Bolger is in Culver City, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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